Fatima Argun and Walter Ruby | Special to WJW
As adherents of the two largest minority faith groups in the United States, Judaism and Islam, we strongly protest the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark SCOTUS decision guaranteeing the right to abortion.
This regressive decision not only tramples on the fundamental right of women to control their own bodies but is a transgression on the religious freedom and values of members of our respective faiths. While the decision does not expressly endorse Christian theological beliefs, its honoring only those constitutional liberty rights that are “deeply rooted in our history and tradition” implicitly does so by disregarding the diverse beliefs and values long not found to be sufficiently “rooted.” As such, it represents a deeply worrying precedent in which the highest court in the land has adopted the dictates of Christian theology to justify a ruling that will now compel women in states that abolish abortion — including members of our own faiths — to carry a fetus to term.
In addition to its troubling adoption of only those historical values held by a limited segment of our Christian population, a result at least implicitly violative of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, the decision known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health disregards serious issues of the right to privacy inherent to both our faith traditions. The decision also raises deeply worrying questions as to how comfortable or safe American Muslims and Jews will be in a nation ever more overtly defined by the most inflexible and doctrinaire segments of the larger and more diverse Christian community.
According to a May 2022 Pew Research Center poll, 83 percent of American Jews believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Among Muslims, a poll by the authoritative Institute for Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found a substantial majority of 56-37 in support of legal abortion in all or most cases.
In that context, it is dismaying to hear some voices referring to the Court’s permitting states to ban abortion as “Christian Sharia.” Sharia (Islamic law) does not demand the banning of abortion either in the Muslim world or here in the United States; the Dobbs decision is far more akin to an expression of Christian fundamentalism pure and simple. While there are important Muslim theological voices on both sides of the issue, just as there are in the Jewish community, the fact remains that, for both our faith traditions, the life of the mother always takes precedence over that of the unborn child.
As for the all-important question of when life begins, Muslim scholars point to different opinions ranging from 40 days, at which time the Prophet Muhammad said human beings are “constituted in the womb,” to 120 days, when the soul is believed to enter the fetus. In Judaism, the Torah, the Mishnah and the Talmud all consider a fetus to be a part of its mother’s body until delivery. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word for soul is neshamah, meaning “breath.” The predominant opinion in both our faiths is that forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy that she does not want or that may endanger her life is morally wrong.
For these reasons, the Court’s striking down of Roe v. Wade appears as nothing less than a Christianization of American law, which is perceived by our minority faith communities as a peril to the principles of religious pluralism and governmental neutrality. The majority opinion’s new rule in Dobbs that the relevant constitutional rights be limited to those “deeply rooted in our history and tradition” carries us back 200 years to a more overtly “Christian” America in which women could not vote or own property, and African Americans were slaves — and clearly dismisses the present reality of a diverse and pluralistic 21st century America.
Jews and Muslims are prepared to rigorously challenge the Court’s overt institutionalization of Evangelical and Catholic doctrine into U.S. law. Even before the striking down of Roe v. Wade, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, a synagogue in Boynton Beach, sued Florida over its ban on abortions after 15 weeks, arguing that it imposes “the laws of other religions upon Jews.” Muslim experts on sharia and constitutional law argue that Muslim Americans similarly have standing to sue against abortion bans that interfere with their religious exercise. Similar challenges based on the same principles are expected to ensue in the near future.
We strongly urge those spearheading this battle in our respective communities to join forces in challenging this state-imposed diminution of our religious freedoms. In so doing, American Muslims and Jews across America will show in one more way how they can stand together in support of pluralism, enhanced interfaith understanding and democracy — societal values that make Muslim and Jewish life sustainable in America.
Walter Ruby and Fatima Argun are leaders of JAMAAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together), a Washington-area grassroots interfaith organization.